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The magic of Drupal events

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I missed joining the DrupalNYC meetup today. Well, I almost missed it but I was able to catch the last 10 minutes or so. That got me thinking about events and that’s the topic for today–Drupal events and their impact on my life. I travelled extensively for 4-5 years before the pandemic restrictions were put in place and since then, I have attended events around the world while sitting in my chair. These travels and events are responsible for my learnings and my professional (and personal) growth. And these are the perspectives that have given me the privilege that I enjoy.

Before I go further, I should thank two organizations that have made this possible for me. The first is my employer, Axelerant, which cares deeply about the community and us being a part of that. They are the reason I was able to contribute to Drupal the way I did and could travel to a lot of these events. The second organization I want to thank is the Drupal Association who organize DrupalCons and made it possible for me to attend some of them.

Why have and attend events?

Software is not written in a vacuum. Any software engineer who has grown with years of experience realizes that the code is a means to an end. It is only a means to an end. You may have written beautiful code; code that has the power to move the souls of a thousand programmers and make poets weep, but if that code is not solving a person’s need, it has no reason to exist.

Therefore, we can say that Drupal has no reason to exist were it not for the people it impacts. Drupal events bring these people together. They enable people to collaborate and solve challenges. They enable diverse perspectives which is the lifeblood of innovation. And they enable broad learning opportunities you would never have sitting in front of a screen staring at a block of code. In other words, these events give a reason for you to keep building Drupal. These events and these people give you a reason to grow.

Why travel?

Not lately, but DrupalCons usually mean travel and everything that comes along with it (airports!) I strongly believe travel is a strong influencer of success. Travelling, by definition, puts you in touch with other people. People whom you have never met and with whom you don’t identify at all. It is these people that give you the perspective you probably need to solve a problem. I have often been on calls at work where we can solve a problem quickly and easily just by bringing in someone from outside the project. This is further reinforced in me after reading David Epstein’s book on generalists and developing broad thinking in “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World“.

In other words, the same reason why events help you grow, travel does too. It just appears to work differently. I have travelled to Australia, United States, Spain, United Kingdom, Switzerland, New Zealand and transited through many other countries. I travelled to these places to attend DrupalCons or other Drupal events and I learned just as much, if not more, from my travels as I learnt at the events.

Online events

True, we cannot travel with restrictions now and that has meant some events getting cancelled and many happening online. Does it give the same benefits as an in-person event. The short answer is “No”. No, it does not give the same benefits but it gives different benefits. Everything I said that gave you different perspectives and helped you grow, all of that is now instantly available to you. You don’t have to travel in long flights and layovers and deal with airport security. A click can take you to any event in the world. You don’t even have to dress up; although people will appreciate it if you do when you turn on the camera.

All the diversity, perspectives, learnings, and more can now be available instantly at a much lesser cost to you and to the environment. Online events may not be a replacement for in-person events, but they have their place and the world now realizes how powerful and effective they can be. I have heard of people who finally attended their first DrupalCon because it was online. Programmers, of all people, should realize how technology can bring people together.

The fatigue of online events

No one pretends that events, online or in-person, are going to be smooth and free of frustration. Online events may be subject to Zoom fatigue in the same way that in-person events are subject to jetlag. These are real problems and like we have learned how to deal with jetlag, we should learn how to deal with online fatigue. It’s our first year and we will only get better.

How do we learn at events?

The answer is simple. No, really. It is very simple and you may think why did I even write a section heading to say this. You learn at events by talking to people. That’s the trick. That’s the magic. Talk to everyone you can. I can identify with the classical introverted programmer who is happy with a screen in front of their face. Talking is a lot of work. More importantly, talking is risky. It makes you vulnerable.

But that exactly is what makes you learn and grow. You can’t expect to gain perspectives without talking to people who could provide that.

Okay, so how do I talk to people?

If talking seems like a lot of work, start by listening. If going to someone and talking to them one-on-one is intimidating, join a group conversation and listen in. Contribute what you can when you can. The Drupal community is awesome and welcoming and I know that they are not likely to make you feel unwelcome if you are just joining a group to listen in.

Online events make it easier to hide and keep our heads down. Resist that temptation and hit the Unmute button to ask a question or just even thank a speaker. Most online conferencing solutions have a networking feature. Use that to pair up with someone random. It’s not as good as running into someone in the hallway but it is good enough.

But, what do I talk about?

That’s a fair question and I think a lot about that. I feel safe in saying that I start by listening. A couple of sentences in, I realize that I do have something to offer. At the time, I don’t worry about how valuable it would be but I share that anyway and I have usually found that the other person finds some value in it.

It is no secret that a lot of us suffer from imposter syndrome. And it is not enough to just tell myself to think that I would overcome that feeling just by speaking about what I know. That is why I listen and offer what I can. If I don’t feel like offering anything, that’s fine. Sometimes, it is enough to just say hello and move on. In fact, this has happened several times to me. I would speak with certain people frequently in issue queues but when we meet, it is a quick hello and we move on, fully knowing that we may not get another chance to meet in that event. And that’s okay.

The awesome Drupal community

Everything I said above is from my own experience dealing with my inhibitions and insecurities in interacting with these celebrated folks. I have many stories of how some of the most popular contributors made me feel not just welcome but special when I met them for the first time. These are events that have happened years ago and I still recollect them vividly. I have shared these stories often both while speaking and in writing. And I am not talking about one or two such people. Almost everyone I can think of has been kind and welcoming and speak in such a way where you feel you are the special one. I can say that because I did feel special talking with them. In those cases, all I had to do was walk in the hallway where they happened to be and just say “Hello”.

Almost all Drupal events are online now and that is a great opportunity for you to get started. The most notable one right now is the DrupalCon North America happening next week. Consider attending that. If you’re attending, consider speaking up and saying hello. And if you are a veteran, consider welcoming new people into the group and make them feel special. If you can’t make it to DrupalCon, there are dozens of other events in various regions throughout the world. Find the one that interests you and go there. You don’t even have to fasten your seatbelt to get there.

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